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World Watch
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card December 19, 2004

What Bush's Big Science Project Ought to Be

Science is a luxury that only rich civilizations can afford.

At the same time, it's a necessity that allows a civilization to adapt to change and continue to survive.

Above all, science is a way of thinking, an approach to knowledge that thrives in a climate of freedom and dies whenever ideological purity is insisted on.

Science in America is in serious trouble, and therefore America is in serious trouble.

Both the Right and the Left in America are pushing political agendas that assail science on every side, banning whole swathes of research and treating other areas as if the final word had already been achieved.

It's not as if there's some other nation poised to take America's place if we let science get flushed down the toilet of politics. It's not an accident that scientists from so many other countries come here to study.

And all the political pressures that are damaging science here in America are even worse in Europe.

Money and Science

It would be lovely if we lived in an ideal world where scientists could pursue whatever avenue most intrigued them. But the days of the dilettante scientist are gone now. It takes serious money to do important research in many fields.

Scientists who work for corporations or governments have their agendas set by their sponsors. Universities are scarcely better -- the pursuit of tenure and the doctrine of "publish or perish" makes it certain that research money will almost always flow into projects that "look good" to the establishment.

Groundbreaking science, therefore, always happens on the fringes, between disciplines, outside the establishment, and that means it is either funded by eccentrics or is done on the cheap, at a theoretical level.

However, this does not mean that the money poured into "establishment science" is wasted. This is where the journeyman work is done: testing, extrapolating, applying, expanding on the work that the eccentrics have done.

By the time the average citizen hears about a scientific idea, chances are it has already moved into the establishment.

And when Congress gets involved, the issue is no longer scientific at all, but political.

Ironically, the establishment always protects and defends itself by invoking the achievements of anti-establishment scientists -- even as the continue to cut out, put down, or steal from today's real scientists.

But ... that's just the way the world works. The scientific establishment always has a vested interest in shutting down innovation; but as long as freedom survives, the innovative thinkers find a way and the new ideas bubble to the surface somewhere.

What Can Government Do?

So here we have a solidly elected one-party government for the first time in decades, with a lame-duck President who therefore has the freedom to make bold decisions without thinking about how it will affect his reelection chances (though of course he must think about how it will affect his party).

What, if anything, can this government do for, with, to, or about American science?

(And let's just stop right now the silly idea that Republicans are somehow anti-science and Democrats pro-science. Both of them are for whatever science advances their own political agenda, and against any science that doesn't. Politics is invariably the natural enemy of science, and all parties are guilty of killing science for political ends -- especially when they are shouting loudest about how their position is "supported by science.")

Or is the best policy to leave science alone?

Scientific research is, in fact, best handled by scientists -- and most effectively stifled by them. One huge help to science would be to break the stranglehold of the printed scientific journals. Right now, university libraries are crippled by the necessity of paying thousands of dollars a year for each single subscription to the leading scientific journals.

There is simply no excuse for this. Peer review is not that expensive, and the internet would allow virtually free dissemination of scientific journals without them ever needing to incur the expense of printing.

The government could transform the situation by declaring that no federal grant money could be used to pay for subscriptions to any scientific journal that is not made available in cheap -- i.e., nearly free -- electronic form.

There will be screaming: "This is an attack on the core of scientific research!" but you have to ignore this. It is the death cry of the disease that you're hearing. There is no excuse whatsoever for access to scientific journals to be limited by money. Every college student in the world should have nearly-free access to any journal in any field, and the internet makes it possible, and our government can make it happen. It should be done, and done now.

Peer review is the key; and in a world of cheap journals, the competition would cease to be for money, and instead would be for reviewers. Journals would compete with each other for prestige, which would come from having the most important innovative articles.

Reputations would rise and fall. Political groups would lose their iron grip on various fields of research. Marginal journals would emerge and compete for attention.

And big babies would complain that everything has gone to hell in a handbasket because it is no longer the way it was in the old days -- when a handful of editors in any given field could stifle research they didn't like.

Massive Projects

At the same time, government can achieve great things by dumping money into massive projects -- provided the projects actually matter.

The space program of the '50's, '60's, and '70's not only got us the immediate results -- footprints on the moon, a working shuttle, and enormous prestige -- but also spun off vast areas of technology and science that would have been impossible without that huge burst of energy.

It was one of the most productive uses of economic surplus that any civilization has ever come up with. Way better than building pyramids. It ranks up there with Portugal's sponsorship of navigation in the 1400s.

But getting humans Mars is not going to have anything like the same impact as getting humans to the moon did, for the obvious reason that going to Mars is simply more of the same. The potential benefits are relatively trivial.

The massive project we need right now -- one that is far more important than the space program -- is energy research.

The reason is simple and clear. There is only so much extractable oil in the earth, and nobody's making any more. And oil is so useful for constructive purposes that it is criminal for us to have burnt so much of it already.

Fuel Reduction Technologies. Hybrid engines are a wonderful development, and the government should level the playing field by making hybrid technology mandatory in a series of stepped goals.

Likewise, alternative fuels need to be explored. But keep this in mind: All the alternative fuels and fuel reduction technologies being touted right now are simply moving the problem around or shrinking it, not solving it.

For instance, hydrogen as a fuel is a chimera: Because you can't drill for hydrogen, you have to make it, and that costs fuel. What fuel? Coal or natural gas or oil, of course. In other words, hydrogen is an energy storage device, not a source of energy -- in effect, a bulky, expensive battery. So even though hydrogen is the only combustible fuel that burns absolutely cleanly, it is never in itself going to solve the long term energy problem.

Batteries. Which brings us to battery research. Computers, phones, and games have driven battery research to really incredible achievements. And hybrids will only become universally practical when battery size shrinks to a quarter of the present bulk. Right now, in a hybrid car you have to give up such a large amount of space to the batteries that there are many needs that the hybrids just can't meet. (Plus, of course, hybrids don't achieve anywhere near as much fuel savings on long-distance drives.)

If you define "batteries" as "energy-storage systems," then hydrogen and fuel cells and other developing technologies are part of this essential research. We have to be able to store energy for later use, safely and in a small space.

Renewable Energy Sources. Petroleum, natural gas, and coal are non-renewable. When they're gone, they're gone. So our goal must be to completely replace them. We need to pursue this goal with the same relentless determination that we applied to the space program. Anything less than the total elimination of the burning of natural hydrocarbons will be failure, as surely as if all our rockets had blown up before leaving the atmosphere.

There are four basic sources of renewable energy: the sun, radioactive elements, wind, and the heat from the core of the Earth. (And yes, I know that wind is partly solar in origin; but it is also partly a result of the rotation of the Earth, so it deserves separate consideration.)

Solar energy includes hydroelectric power, of course -- it is the sun's evaporation of water that puts it at high elevations, so that we can harvest the energy of gravity as the water then returns to sea level.

Most of these sources of energy have downsides:

Hydroelectric power in the form of big reservoirs with turbines require that land be covered with water -- and too often it's choice soil land. (Micro-turbines and tidal turbines may yet provide a significant amount of energy.)

Nuclear energy has the grave problem of creating deadly waste that can go on killing for thousands and thousands of years.

Wind energy is absolutely clean, but can only be harvested with machinery that takes up space and needs servicing. Nevertheless, this is the most promising immediate source of renewable, nonpolluting energy, and there is simply no excuse for not putting high-wind land to use in wind farms.

(To those who say that wind farms "spoil the view," I answer: not as much as smog; they have a beauty of their own; and if you think your private aesthetics should trump the longterm survival of high-level civilization, I think you're a lunatic.)

Harvesting geothermal energy is really a matter of engineering as much as science, and that means that dumping money into research in that area has a high likelihood of yielding results in the long run.

Ultimately, however, the most important area of research is artificial photosynthesis -- another way of looking at photovoltaics.

Almost all life on Earth is built on the foundation of photosynthesis, in which plants take sunlight and turn it into usable energy. (And all our current burnable fuels are really just harvesting a billion years of photosynthesis.)

That's the achievement we need to duplicate to supply longterm energy for transportation and manufacturing, in order to keep civilization alive for the next few million years.

Right now, that means photovoltaics -- efficient direct conversion of solar energy into electricity. But with enough money and freedom, scientists and engineers might be able to find other, better ways of converting sunlight to usable energy.

Cost Effectiveness. The trouble with these avenues of research is that they are as economically impractical as, say, building a transcontinental railroad was in 1869 or going to the moon was a century later. Without government willing it to be so, there was no short-term financial benefit.

The only reason that anybody got rich from building the transcontinental railroad was that they got free land on either side of the right-of-way (and they cheated the government and their stockholders, but that's another story).

If we wait until oil is so rare and expensive that alternative sources of energy become financially competitive, it will be too late. Shamefully so.

We have to find alternatives before the oil is gone. And that requires government action, because the free market, left to itself, will burn all the cheap oil -- whereupon there is a high likelihood of an unrecoverable crash, because science cannot take place on the same timescale as market forces.

In other words, if government doesn't force the issue by funding research and then radically deincentivizing the burning of fossil fuels, free market capitalism will drink itself to death on oil. And our civilization will die with it.

There is no more important science project our government can embark on.

And, ironically, it is also the most important thing we can do for our national defense.

I can't think of a more urgent place for President Bush to invest his political capital. And if he does it, he will be remembered for it the way we remember Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase and Lewis & Clark expedition, Lincoln's transcontinental railroad, and Eisenhower's interstate highway system.

We could, quite literally, save the world.

What About Space?

Does that mean that I think we shouldn't go to Mars?

In a word, yes.

But I do think we have important work to do in space.

Every year, the Earth is struck by thousands of meteors. Most of them tiny and harmless.

Every few thousand years, though, we get some pretty big meteors. Damaging ones. And even more rarely, we get meteors so huge that they cause mass extinctions.

When will the next big meteor fall? Nobody knows. Might not be for a million years. Might be tomorrow.

But if we wait until a big meteor is sighted before we start coming up with ways to save the Earth from a collision with it, it will be too late.

Compared to fuel-replacement research, anti-meteor research really seems like pie-in-the-sky, doesn't it? And it will continue to seem that way until it's needed. At which point, whoever created an effective collision-avoidance system will look like the greatest human who ever lived.

And in fact, we really don't need to wait for the Really Big Meteor for such a project to be cost effective. The most dangerous meteors will be those too small to detect at a great distance, but just large enough to cause localized devastation. Not the mass-extinction meteors, but the wipe-out-Kansas City meteors. And those are much likelier to show up and need dealing with.

So I don't much care about Mars. I do, however, care very much about going farther than Mars, to the asteroid belt, where we can work on technologies to deflect or destroy asteroids.

And as long as we're out there, we might as well figure out how to mine those suckers and make the project recover some of its cost.

Does all this sound like science fiction and not the "real world"?

Look around you, kids. You're living right now in a world that would have been science fiction a hundred years ago. In fact, the great failure of science fiction is that it didn't begin to predict most of the important transformative technologies of our time.

Meteors: We know they're coming; we know they can destroy us; we don't know yet how to stop them. You want a space program? That's the one with a practical goal, even though it might be a very long time before it proves its worth.

But a government like ours can be forgiven for regarding meteor-deflection as a low priority. That's just too far ahead for most politicians to think.

The elimination of burning hydrocarbons, though -- that has immediate as well as long-range benefits, and it will be a mark of shame for this Republican government if they don't provide us -- and our children -- with a renewable way to move things and make things.

Copyright © 2004 by Orson Scott Card.


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